Wisconsin resident Tina Dorschel was enjoying a hike along a boardwalk in a nature sanctuary in the Naples, Florida, area this week when she received quite a surprise. A Florida panther ran right past her on the path, and she got the whole thing on video.
Dorschel uploaded the footage to social media Tuesday, recording the encounter from a visit to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
"The panther was surprised and frightened, but it went about its business, so there was no harm and no foul on anyone's part," says Luke Dollar, a conservation biologist who helps manage National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. "It was a very special encounter."
Dollar adds that Dorschel appeared to act appropriately around the big predator. She didn't run, which can trigger a cat's natural instinct to chase prey. She stood still and tall. (Get more panther safety tips.)
"Compared to something only three feet tall we look pretty scary," says Dollar. "It's important to remember that we're guests in their habitat." (See photos of Florida's wildlife habitat.)
Although we might have a natural, evolutionary response to be afraid when we see a predator, the animals actually have more cause to be afraid of us, says Dollar. The biggest ongoing threat to Florida panthers is being hit by cars, especially along the section of U.S. 75 known as "Alligator Alley" in the southern part of the state.
Those who care about the animals should set their cruise control to avoid speeding, says Tim Tetzlaff, the director of conservation for the Naples Zoo, who has studied the big cats. Driving the posted 45 miles per hour in a three-mile "panther zone" instead of 60 adds just one minute of drive time, he notes.
Florida panthers have slowly recovered from the brink. Their population plummeted to a few dozen in the 1970s and 1980s, after centuries of hunting and habitat loss. In 1995, eight breeding-age mountain lions were brought in from Texas, the next most similar population. The experiment worked, and Florida panthers have been slowly recovering since.
Dollar's masters thesis analyzed that conservation program. "They brought Florida panthers back from the walking dead," he notes.
The Florida panther is the same species as the big cat that roams across much of the Americas and is known by various names, from mountain lion to cougar, puma, and beyond. Yet the population's unique adaptation to the south Florida environment has earned it special status in biological and cultural history. As a result, the animals are federally protected as endangered.
Encounters with the big cats are quite rare, says Tetzlaff, particularly in such close proximity as Dorschel experienced. Still, encounters have been slowly rising as the cats make a comeback.
The state estimates there are a minimum of 100 to 180 adult panthers in Florida, concentrated in the southern part of the state. Panthers have also been seen (and even filmed) with some regularity in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which serves as good habitat, Tetzlaff notes.
It's unclear why the cat didn't jump off the path, the scientists note. Perhaps it wanted to take the fastest, easiest way to get out of the area.
If people do want to see a Florida panther up close, they can visit the cat being rehabilitated at the Naples Zoo, says Tetzlaff. The male was blinded by a shotgun blast in an incident that is still being investigated by the state.